"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, December 11, 2015

Ceremonies–Tepid And Meaningless But We Can’t Do Without Them

When Paul Conti’s grandmother died, he did not attend the funeral.  He was spared, his non-Italian uncle told him, the grand guignol of an Italian wake. Wild horses couldn’t drag his uncle  to one of these grotesqueries, and he was happy that his sister-in-law had never insisted.  Truth be known, Marla Conti was ashamed of her husband’s family which was barely Italian, born so far South that she referred to them as gli Africani.  Her family was from a small village not far from Calabria, so when she told her West End bridge partners that her family was from ‘near Rome’, she was assuming that she could fool these old New Englanders; but no amount of face powder, blush, and blonde highlights could lighten her origins; and ironically Mrs. Trowbridge called her ‘Our Little African’. 

A Southern Campania funeral was just as hysterical as one in Calabria, and the families that had left the Mezzogiorno in the late 1800s had brought traditional  funerals, weddings, and baptisms with them from the old country to the United States; but because they felt so uprooted and lost in their new home, they tended to exaggerate and overdo.  Wedding ceremonies even among the poorest families, were far from joyous affairs.  The opening scenes of The Godfather – happy families dancing the tarantella -  had nothing to do with the weddings of the Contis and Salvatores which were less celebratory than angry, spiteful affairs.


Daughters were not generously given away in marriage to young men, but pried from their jealous, resentful fathers.  Out on the lawn behind the fire hall, the old Salvatore men drank strega, smoked cheroots, and pissed on the Contis while the women, fat and unstable on the rickety lawn chairs the Contis had rented from the Jew on Arch Street, peered out from their black cabal and plotted ways to discredit the impure interlopers who were descendants of Scipio Africanus and his black legions who marauded through Italy, spread their genes throughout the South and gave the world the Calabrese.  Of course Scipio was one of Rome’s greatest white generals who had been born in Alexandria, then a Roman province; but the dark-complexioned Calabrese had to have real African seed in them, and Scipio Africanus was as good a sower as any.

Funerals were another thing altogether.  Bedlam is nothing compared to the screaming, wailing, and dervish whirling of  bereaved Italians.


Things have changed since the early days of Wooster Square and South Philadelphia.   Italian weddings have all but disappeared since second generation families have become so inter-mixed and so assimilated that aside from a retro-hipster tarantella in San Francisco, they are no different from any other.

Which may or may not be a good thing.  Although tough going for outsiders, there was nothing cookie-cutter about Italian weddings and Irish wakes. 
Edward Albee was very critical of the American family and its bourgeois pretensions, but he understood that families are the crucible of maturity.  George and Martha (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) savage each other to the marrow, for they both understand that flaying is the only way to strip through the layers of sentiment and routine that enslave us.

The bloody, down-and-dirty battles between George and Martha are hard to watch because they are without pity, give no quarter, and are without compassion.  Only if they face each other, the death of their fictitious, fantasy son, and their own weakness can George and Martha possibly face the future.
The end of the play is hopeful.  For all the tethers, traces, and harnesses put on man and wife in marriage, it still is the most important institution in any society.  For couples there is no escaping it or each other; and even if divorce rather than reconciliation results from inter-spousal bloodshed, it remains the one social structure which enables maturity and adulthood.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is another example of a hothouse marriage.  Brick and Maggie live within a privileged but structurally weak family; and it is only thanks to the dynamics of close relationships (husband and wife, son and father, daughter-in-law and father-in-law, brothers, and children) that they come to some final accommodation.  “If only it were true”, says Brick when Maggie says she loves him at the end of the play.

O’Neill’s plays are all about families with problems; but like Albee and Williams, he understands that the most vital, human, and often brutal passions can only be expressed and contested within a family.  One is repulsed by the venality and murderous manipulation of Christine Mannon; but her attractiveness as a willful, dominant, but ultimately flawed woman is inescapable. 

Hedda Gabler, Rebekka West, and Hilda Wangel are strong, determined women; and Ibsen also knew that the deepest psychological issues would only be resolved within the cage of marriage.


The point is that old Italian weddings, Irish wakes for all their excesses  were all loaded experiences.  Everything meant something else.  The dead body in the coffin was not just a corpse but the originator of a will; or an abusive father just as well dead, cold, and embalmed; or an ineffectual weakling who left the family to sort out its own debilities.  Or a cad, philanderer, cheat, thief, or murderer.

Most Italian wailing was for show – jostling for position within the realigned family; tears not so much of grief but of respite or even opportunity.  Grand guignol funerals were like Carnival – a chance to dress up, show off, get rid of frustrations, and try out a new persona.
Weddings were more often than not business propositions according to which families were to join forces, wealth, and genetic lines; but were also theatre – melodrama to those who participated, pure showy pretention to outsiders; but always essential ingredients in the family mix.
Cookie-cutter weddings are the rule today rather than the exception.  Rehearsal dinners, bridesmaids’ dresses, toasts, dancing, ice sculptures, party favors, and showy magnanimity.  They are expensive, often tasteless or without taste, tedious, predictable, long, boring, and unnecessary.  A simple ceremony under and oak tree, followed by a brunch at Adele would be just fine.

The wedding industry is big business.  An average wedding costs $30,000 and there are 3 million of them per year for a total amount of $90bn per year; and this does not count engagement rings, parties, showers, and other celebrations.   How could weddings have gotten so out of hand, especially since most of the ingredients which made Italian weddings so essential are gone.  Weddings are more show than substance.  There is little riding on the marriage of Jessica from Saddle Ridge and Josh from Dubuque.

As far as funerals are concerned, there is never a reading of the will for the family, the sine qua non of novels like Middlemarch, no public contestation, no acrimony, and no furious hostility.  All will be handled by the courts and disputes obviated by ironclad wills or trusts.  The dead will simply be dead to be disposed of and buried.

We live in tepid times.  Except for the Bible Belt, most religion has the consistency of cooled porridge, hardly worth getting up for.  Families are configured for maximum independence.  Children, no longer necessary to light the funeral pyre or provide in old age, cost more than they are worth; so parents invest all their resources in their status.  “My son goes to Harvard” has less to do with the poor boy than  with the parents who pulled every string on the rack to get him there.  Families are no longer crucibles but holding pens.

So, we go through the motions because they are expected.  We still live in more or less nuclear families, still go to church on Sundays, and still have big weddings and funerals, but the fire has been banked.  Perhaps in a later generation, once this dissipation and enervation has run its course, it will flame up again.  But not now.

The Pre-Columbian Indians of Mesoamerica worshipped the immanent gods of nature – the god of thunder, lightning, earthquake and hurricane.  The practiced human sacrifice and went to war dressed as savage animals.  It was not the Aztecs who fought the enemy but panthers, lions, hawks, bears, and alligators.


Worship and war were violent, extreme, and spiritually powerful.  Nothing compared to the tame, quiet, and passionless ceremonies of today.   We are more civilized it is said, but perhaps farther from realizing the experience of our short lives than our pagan ancestors.

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